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Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
24 Jun 2011

Lehnhoff takes on Fanciulla for Netherlands Opera

It can be fascinating, although not necessarily pleasant, to see oneself through the eyes of others.

Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West

Minnie: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Jack Rance: Lucio Gallo; Dick Johnson: Zoran Todorovich; Nick: Roman Sadnik; Ashby: Diogenes Randes; Sonora: Stephen Gadd; Billy Jackrabbit: Tijl Faveyts; Wowkle: Ellen Rabiner; Jake Wallace: André Morsch; José Castro: Roger Smeets. Netherlands Opera Chorus. Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Carlo Rizzi, conductor. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. Recorded live at The Amsterdam Music Theater, November and December 2009.

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A citizen of the U.S.A. may well discover with some alarm that we Americans are seen as crass capitalists with sentimental streaks and a penchant for firearms and random violence, all carried along with a confidence alternately charming and cloying. Traditional productions of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West reflect this a bit, as inherent in the material. Minnie, the virginal, Bible-teaching owner of a saloon during the Gold Rush in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fights off the lusty Sheriff Rance while falling hopelessly for highwayman-in-disguise Dick Johnson. Pistol in hand, she saves Johnson (already grievously wounded by Rance and his men) from a lynching, and they ride off into the sunset at opera’s end, singing “Addio, California.” The creaky plot centers on Johnson and his gang’s plan to steal the money and gold from the safe Minnie maintains for the prospectors at her saloon, but it is Minnie herself who is the real treasure.

Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff loves the sheer absurdity of it all, but the triumph of his wild production for the Netherlands Opera is how much of Puccini’s original intent shines through, because it’s all there in the score — the redemptive power of love, and the drama of broken people trying to remake themselves into something resembling a whole person.

One could wish Lehnhoff didn’t begin the opera with projections of 20th century stock traders yelling and waving their arms on an exchange floor, and then end the opera with projections of dollar bills on the scrim, raining down on Minnie and Johnson as they sing their goodbyes to the Golden State. In between, however, despite some stylized updating (Minnie’s “cabin” is a motor caravan with a Barbie-doll pink interior), Lehnhoff stays true, for your reviewer, to the spirit of the opera. The miners all adore Minnie as always, Wowkle and Billy Jackrabbit are as politically incorrect as ever, and the exquisitely scored entrances and dramatic climaxes of Puccini’s music are all reflected in the stage action. No, Minnie doesn’t ride in on a horse in act three, and Johnson is on top of a wrecked auto in a salvage yard as the noose is placed around his neck, but in theatrical context, it all works.

And the chief reason this works is Lehnhoff’s excellent cast, starting with his star, Eva-Maria Westbroek. With a passing resemblance to Carol Neblett, not only is Westbroek physically suited for the role, but she has the sizeable instrument the role requires. High note aficionados may rank Westbroek’s as somewhat under the top range on a scale of 1-10 — they don’t “bloom” — but she has the notes. And when Minnie gets to express her softer side, Westbroek can manage that singing very well too. Speaking of Neblett, in a charming if lightweight bonus feature, Westbroek speaks of her love for the justly famous Covent Garden video of Fanciulla with Domingo and Neblett, in a staging that Westbroek herself joyfully accepted the opportunity to perform in.

Westbroek’s primary male colleagues aren’t quite matches for Domingo and the Rance of that Covent Garden video, Silvano Carroli, though both Zoran Todorovich as Johnson and Lucio Gallo as Rance fit their roles well. Todorovich has a big, unsubtle technique, which works for some of the role but crucially lets him down for the biggest moment, the act three aria “Ch’ella mi creda.” It can be said that he looks pretty darn good (for a tenor) in leather jeans. Gallo’s baritone is far from being the most beautiful as well, and his act one aria is not much more than adequate. He relishes being the villain of the piece, however, and his commitment adds to the staging’s success. In the smaller roles, Roman Sadnik is very amusing as a campy Nick the bartender, and André Morsch sings Jake Wallace’s plaint prettily enough.

The reliable Carlo Rizzi leads the Netherlands forces with professional skill. In Blu-Ray the many details of designer Raimund Bauer’s sets come through with crystal clarity. In its own way — a way which will, undoubtedly, not work for more traditional viewers — the entire staging has its own beauty. This shouldn’t be the only Fanciulla lovers of this magnificent opera possess, but anyone open to Lehnhoff’s point of view will find it a smashing entertainment.

Chris Mullins


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